Schools Should Be Teaching Kids How to Use the Internet Well

But outdated web filters make that mission quite difficult.

Randy Snyder/AP Photo

During this year’s State of the Union address, President Obama championed the goal of increasing bandwidth in schools across the country. The following day, a group of CEOs wrote an open letter encouraging the chairman of the FCC to “act boldly to modernize the E-rate program to provide the capital needed to upgrade our K-12 broadband connectivity and Wi-Fi infrastructure.” These calls to action were answered with pledges from business leaders amounting to $750 million dollars, an influx of money that should help provide more enriching learning environments for students across the country.

As schools begin to plan for the benefits of improved connectivity, it is important to consider the responsibility of giving students guidance in becoming productive citizens of the web. New curricula must acknowledge the many-headed hydra that is social media: Its forms range from the mundane distraction to be overcome to the 21st century communication skill to be mastered. Integration of conscious social media use as well as policies that provide more free and unfiltered Internet access are two ways of modeling best practices and actively teaching Internet skills within schools.

Especially as mobile devices enter the classrooms, students are exposed to the full range of what is available on the Internet. So it should be in the domain of schools more than ever to help students manage these capabilities. In an article called “Driven to distraction: How to help wired students learn to focus,” psychologist Larry Rosen finds in his research that students who are constantly distracted by social media do far worse academically than their peers who exercise less impulse control about their use of technology. Even with these findings, Rosen does not insist that technology be kept out of the classroom—in fact, he recommends allowing this part of kids lives into the classroom through managed “technology breaks.”

Rosen argues that students must learn how to function alongside distraction and that school is a good forum for students to actively practice this sort of metacognition. In an article on boredom and Twitter in schools, Amanda Ripley suggests that students who are bored fall into two groups: the “reappraisers,” or students who teach themselves to see the value in a boring task, and the “evaders,” or those who search for distraction from boredom in technology. Unsurprisingly, the former have much more success academically than the latter. It is important that students not be conditioned to think of social media only as an escape to drown out other necessary tasks, but as something that might be integrated thoughtfully into life. This sort of skill is not just important in school. Even on the job, the most valuable employees will be those who know how to balance focused work and social interaction even when both collide on the device in front of them.

Even with the new push for universal broadband in schools, though, there’s a barrier to teaching children these valuable lessons: widespread use of Internet filters in schools. The federal Children’s Internet Protection Act mandates that libraries and schools (especially those receiving internet subsidy through the government's E-rate program). Although in many cases adults can disable filters, the process is often complicated and cannot be done easily for a class of students working on an assignment that requires access to blogging platforms or other social media. In blocking harmful content, commonly used software like Websense and AutoExec Admin limits access to much important social media because of the difficulty of filtering explicit content from user generated material.

Supervision of computer use is far better for educational purposes than simply shutting down rich and useful websites completely. Karen Cator, director of the education technology at the United States Department of Education says about Internet filters in schools, “What we have had is what I consider brute-force technologies that shut down wide swaths of the Internet, like all of YouTube, for example. Or they may shut down anything that has anything to do with social media, or anything that is a game. These broad filters aren’t actually very helpful, because we need much more nuanced filtering.”

The tension between the educational goal of teaching students to use the web well and the reality of Internet filters is evident in a recent document from the New York City Department of Education. This past fall, it released a guide to social media use for students. The outlook is sunny. The obvious message is that social media is an important life skill for the 21st century, applicable to future jobs.  The guidelines state their purpose as three-fold:  to give “recommendations about healthy social media communications” and “ideas about how to create a smart digital footprint,” as well as to advise on what to do in cases of inappropriate behavior and cyber-bullying. But the document steers clear of any promises about what schools will teach—it rests at suggestion. In fact, the section about creating a digital footprint culminates in a reminder that “Families can be helpful partners” and that students should  “Share your digital footprint with your parents and consider their suggestions.” By passing responsibility on to parents, this document acknowledges that many of the city's classrooms fall victim to just the sort of “brute-force technologies” that Cator speaks against. Before schools can take an active role in teaching social media use, responsibility, and self discipline, students and teachers need legitimate access to such platforms in the classroom must be clarified and legitimized by modernizing web filters.

The intentions of using Internet filters in schools are good of course, but they were created in times when it was still possible to shield students from the the dangers of the unknown. Better now is to take needed steps toward educating students about how to live responsibly and productively on the Internet. As the recent failed rollout of iPads in Los Angeles has shown, students excel at breaking through filters and accessing whatever they want through proxy servers. It is counterintuitive to move forward with new technology in schools while still holding on to older models of the division between what is potentially harmful and what holds educational value.